‘We want to think, as well as worship, at Hillsong’

One day, Hillsong might be as famous for theologians as worship leaders

Tanya Riches is a new kind of theologian, one who is lifting the intellectual vigour of Hillsong Church, which she says has been mostly a worshipping community for the past 20 years rather than a thinking one.

Ed. — Meaning she is new to study and theology full stop.


Tanya under the Tree of Knowledge

Squeezing me into her busy schedule to talk over lunch, the freshly minted PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary in Los Angeles and the leader of the new Masters programme at Hillsong College in Sydney says she is trying to forge new paths in scholarship.

Ed. — Mmm. Fuller. The following is from a student from there.

My name is Steve Cha, and I was a student who was in the MAT graduate program. I have recently left Fuller Theological Seminary after studying one year with the school. I felt burdened to share with you why I decided to leave Fuller after much contemplation. This will not be easy for me to say, but I feel that I need to do it for the sake of God’s honor and for the future of the school.

Over the course of the year (from Spring 2011-Spring 2012), I have had an uncomfortable and unsatisfying experience at Fuller because of its teaching, which, quite frankly, borders on heresy.

I’m not talking about peripheral biblical issues like charismatic spiritual gifts or modes of baptism, but the core, foundational doctrines that all Christians should agree on, as established by the New Testament and illustrated by the 16th Century Reformation.

During my five quarters at Fuller, I have had professors;

  • Who defied [denied] the trustworthiness of Scripture,
  • questioned the literalness and existence of eternal hell/lake of fire,
  • taught a form of theistic evolution over the six-day creation account established in the book of Genesis,
  • hinted that Jesus may not be the only way to heaven,
  • shaped the gospel message and Jesus’ work on Calvary to make it fit the paradigm of a cultural mandate and social justice type of message instead of the orthodox view of what the gospel and the cross means, which is God’s punishment of sinners with eternal hell, Jesus’ sacrifice and atonement to satisfy God’s justice and wrath, Jesus’ imputed righteousness, salvation by faith in Christ alone, etc.

I have many examples and stories to share, but I’ll start with some of the key ones. It first started when I took the NT Gospels class with Professor Tommy Givens.

Professor Givens taught a skewed understanding of the gospel message.

In general, he taught an unorthodox view of what Jesus did on the cross, and had an unbiblical view regarding heaven, hell, and the afterlife (which he didn’t really believe in). In addition, the eschatological view Professor Givens taught is not what the Bible teaches regarding the future and Jesus’ Second Coming. Givens interpreted Matthew 24 (the “signs of His coming”) to be merely pointing to the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 and God’s judgment on the Pharisaic Jews, when the language of the text and its worldwide scope clearly show that it is talking about the final generation before Jesus’ Second Coming to earth.

My big issue, however, is not with the professor’s eschatology error.

The real dangerous issue that came about was that Professor Givens defied a central pillar of Christianity by declaring that he did not believe that there was a place of individual eternal torment that unbelievers go to after they die.

In essence, he didn’t believe in hell!

He believed that people go out of existence when they die (which is exactly what the WatchTower teaches) and that the lake of fire in Revelation 20: 11-15 was symbolic and figurative!

Furthermore, Givens made an unproven claim that the place of “outer darkness” that Jesus talked about in the Gospels was really God’s judgment that came upon the Pharisees during Rome’s destruction of the Temple and the Jewish people in A.D. 70 and didn’t apply to us today.

This is clearly unbiblical and indicative of poor hermeneutical training, since the Bible shows that the references to outer darkness, place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, and fiery furnace is the reference to eternal hell, not to some temporal earthly judgment of the past, with no real relevance today.

Read more of the letter here

In addition to this scathing testimony from Steve Cha is the following outline of what these colleges teach.

What do Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Biola Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary,  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Urshan Graduate School of Theology, Briercrest College and Seminary, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Multnomah Biblical Seminary,  Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Moody Theological Seminary & Graduate School and around 240 other seminaries throughout North America all have in common?

They are all accredited through the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).

In the ATS Handbook under Assessing Outcomes in the Master of Divinity Program, where it talks about assessing students progress, it states:

The Master of Divinity degree program standard requires that students be educated in four areas: (1) Religious Heritage, (2) Cultural Context, (3) Personal and Spiritual Formation, and (4) A Guide for Evaluating Theological Learning Capacity for Ministerial and Public Leadership . . .  The MDiv standard requires each school to address the four areas. (page 4, Section 8)

The future of Christian theological schools is bleak. In many cases, they are the most dangerous places for Christians to be, from a biblical point of view.

Already scores of them are implementing contemplative spirituality, via Spiritual Formation programs, into the lives of their students. And remember, these students are the evangelical/Protestant church’s future pastors, youth pastors,Sunday school teachers, professors, and leaders. Thanks to ATS and ABHE , there’s little doubt that a growing number of Christian seminaries and colleges will join the ranks of contemplative-promoting schools.

Consider the following by some of the people who are recommended on the resource list at ATS.

This will illustrate the severity of this epidemic of apostasy.

Henri Nouwen: “Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God.” (Sabbatical Journey, Nouwen, p. 51, 1998 Hardcover Edition) 

Rose Mary Dougherty: A Catholic nun who teaches zen and contemplative prayer says that her Zen Buddhist meditation does not conflict with her Catholic faith. ( http://www.religionnews.com/index.php?/rnstext/can_a_bishop_also_be_a_buddhist/)

Daniel Goleman:“The meditation practices and rules for living of these earliest Christian monks [the Desert Fathers]  bear strong similarity to those of their Hindu and Buddhist renunciate brethren several kingdoms to the East . . . the meditative techniques they adopted for finding their God suggest either a borrowing from the East or a spontaneous rediscovery.”Daniel Goleman, The Meditative Mind (Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher/Putnam Inc., 1988), p.53; (taken from chapter 2 of A Time of DepartingNote: Goleman’s book advocates Tantric sex, Kundalini, T.M. and other deep occultic meditative practices.

Read more here

Tanya continues …. When she started her MPhil on music at Hillsong, there was practically no body of research on her church to draw on, only newspaper articles … mostly very critical.

“Journalists mainly come from the inner west of Sydney, educated areas, whereas my church was very uneducated, so it was very confronting culturally,” she observes.

While Tanya loves the spirituality and “artisan soul” of Hillsong culture, she loves the emphasis on biblical content in the Anglican Church.

“You look for what’s missing – what can I contribute? What can I bring and give?” – Tanya Riches

Ed. — I agree with this much, that theology and proper study of the scriptures has been missing from Hillsong for a long time.

She says there was a time in Hillsong’s history when there was almost a stigma for someone to have a PhD. But the second generation of leaders at Hillsong Church are pushing for more education and scholarly content so that they can move beyond the worship mandate they inherited from the previous generation.

“And I think the generation above us are supporting that transition of leadership,” she says.


“So Lee Burns, who’s the Head of our college, is doing PhD in biblical studies at the moment and I think there are a lot of people who are in the Hillsong congregation for whom that’s a natural progression. You look for what’s missing – what can I contribute? What can I bring and give? And we’re realising that’s what’s needed. So it seems like an open field to contribute.”

When Tanya joined Hillsong College a year ago, she didn’t even have an office but had to use a cleaned-out storeroom. “Now there are six people in that office because of the need to deepen our theology and we really are taking that seriously and putting energy into that,” she says.

“Now there are six people in that office because of the need to deepen our theology.” – Tanya Riches

Ed. — I appreciate her sincererity, but I have two concerns; what has been happening at Hillsong up until now, and the second, she is a woman, which scripture warns they are not to teach men (See 1 Tim 2:12). Ahh…unless that’s part of the new thinking and the new theology?

The first thing she is focused on is writing down the theology of what has been up to now an oral Pentecostal community. The first fruits of that came in a book launch last week of The Hillsong Movement Examined: You Call Me Out Upon the Water (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), a collaboration between 15 scholars, some from inside the church and some outside.

Ed. — The book is priced at over $70.00, the last time I looked.

Asked what the challenges are facing Hillsong, she says the main one that came up at this week’s book launch was the gap between the media perception of the church and how it feels from the inside.

“The media perception is so strong. Who we are as described by them doesn’t fit me and it doesn’t fit my friends. But I still have to continually grapple with stereotypes. I think that’s really challenging. I hope we do it graciously, I hope that we can potentially show other examples of what being Pentecostal is like, but I also feel quite frustrated at times that we’re flattened so much,” she says.

“I thought ‘Oh, my goodness I need to hang out with them because they need more content!’” – Tanya Riches

Tanya says the only reason she joined the staff of Hillsong College’s city campus was the challenge of meeting the content needs of an “incredible international group of students” who were doing a third-year Bible class on global ministry and culture.

“I thought ‘Oh, my goodness I need to hang out with them because they need more content!’ I felt like we need to grow, we need to be developing leadership in them,” she says.

She has spent a lot of time working with the college students on praxis (the process of applying or realising ideas), because the church is strong in serving but not in thought leadership.

“Another challenge the leadership really are grappling with is working out how to steward and direct  leaders who literally come off the plane every year from Hillsong churches all around the globe, and how are we going to create structures that disciple them effectively. Those are ways that I think we need to grow.”

“We’re sort of reinventing how scholarship could work.” – Tanya Riches

Ed. — Reinventing Scholarship? How many have been doing that for the last 50 Years, and where has it got us? 

As well as her role at Hillsong College, Tanya has also lectured in ethnomusicology at Excelsia College Sydney. She has honorary status at the Cadbury Centre at the University of Birmingham and at AlphaCrucis College, Sydney. But another way Tanya is forging a new path is in combining her theological career with work at the Centre for Disability Studies, an affiliate of the University of Sydney because she didn’t want to be isolated in an ivory tower.

“[Pentecostals are] definitely not as intellectual, it’s a very poetic kind of scholarship and faith.” – Tanya Riches

Ed. — Tanya really means to say warm and fuzzy Scholarship? She is at least acknowledging a problem with the majority of Hillsong members. But how do you come back from subjective experience, back to objective truth?

“For me personally, that means I am flat chat! You know, I manage research projects in the disability space and I run the masters’ program, but I feel this need to do that because I didn’t want to model leadership that doesn’t take social science seriously as a theologian.”

“But the Masters programme Hillsong College is too small – I can’t go ‘I’m only interested in this’. So I think that’s a huge challenge for us going forward. We’re sort of reinventing how scholarship could work.

“Our masters students say ‘I really want to be a biblical scholar and a theologian;’ they don’t know how unique that is.”

Speaking before attending the Society for Pentecostal Studies meeting in Ohio next week, Tanya says there is a strong cohort of Pentecostal scholars who have a history stretching back to the 1950s.

“But Pentecostals have been a very marginal movement in terms of theology. They’re definitely not as intellectual, it’s a very poetic kind of scholarship and faith so I think that’s the tradition that I draw from,” she says.

“What the world really needs, I think, is images of how we can create a great society and how we could have a spirited life and existence; and there’s a fundamental need of humanity to connect with God and I think what we need are theologies that can speak to that need, rather than theologies that simply order doctrine.

“I mean, exploring Aboriginal Christian voices in Australia is seen as a peripheral thing but it’s actually so central, and I think land and identity is so crucial for us in understanding who Australia is and where it’s going.”

Tanya Riches currently works at the Centre for Disability Research and Policy, University of Sydney.

Tanya does research in Religion, Development Economics and Cultural Anthropology. Her recent project ‘The Hillsong Movement Examined: You Call Me Out Upon the Water’ was published through Palgrave McMillan. She is currently working on a collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors who are exploring the intersection between traditional Dreaming Spirituality and Pentecostal/Spirit-filled Christianit(ies).

Tanya Riches is one of the speakers at the Fixing Her Eyes conference in Crows Nest, Sydney, today. Her talk is entitled What Women Want.

Ed, —  So much for thinking and a PhD. from Fuller….

To learn more about the background to Hillsong’s simple doctrine, reflected in its music see the book —


Buy kindle and paperback on Amazon